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Merely good; it could have been great.
on April 11, 2012
From Rowley's Whiskey Forge:
It has become a cliché of modern bartending that bitters are to cocktails as salt is to soup. They are the seasoning, the ingredient that can turn merely acceptable drinks into stellar ones. Or, as one Filipino friend explained to another in a turn close to my heart, "Bitters are to cocktails as bay leaves are to adobo." You may or may not be able to pinpoint the taste, but without it, everything has a certain flatness.
If you already make your own cocktail bitters, chances are that Brad Thomas Parsons' recent book on the subject holds little new for you. On the other hand, if you're just starting to dabble or don't know where to begin, Bitters conveniently brings together a lot of material in one place. With no other bitters manual in print, one might even call it indispensable for the DIY cocktail enthusiast.
After some introductory remarks and history, Parsons dives into the meat of the matter with short profiles of some two dozen players in today's bitters boom: Fee Brothers, Bittermans, The Bitter Truth, Dr. Adam Elmegirab's Bitters, Bar Keep Bitters, Scrappy's, and more. Not a bad lineup considering that a decade ago, Angostura, Fee Brothers, and Peychaud's were the three remaining bitters producers that survived Prohibition. He includes recipes for thirteen bitters such as apple, orange, rhubarb, coffee-pecan, and root beer bitters. A substantial collection of cocktail recipes using bitters -- more than half the book -- rounds out the pages.
Parsons clearly has spent much time obsessing over bitters; he interviews appropriate authorities and booze pundits, he includes the right companies and products, and he hits the high points of history. He's done his homework. Yet there's a clumsiness about his writing. After going on for some length about sassafras, for instance, Parsons calls for using it in a recipe -- but what part of the plant? The powdered leaves he writes about? The root he mentions? They are as different as ham and bacon. Or consider this entry under Snake Oil Bitters: "Not much is known about this lineup of Brooklyn bitters or their creator..." Really? That's either lazy or disingenuous.
The passage that prompted me to bark out in disbelief, though, is this:
"Once I've sized up a joint, I'll ask the bartender, 'Do you make your own bitters?' More often than not, the answer is yes."
Oh, come on. Laudable as making bitters is, I guarantee you that the vast majority of American bartenders do no such thing. I can only imagine that this is a sampling error stemming from Parsons' preference for places with what he deems "serious bar programs." I like those places, too, but they're far from the only game in town.
While there are welcome lists of bittering and flavoring agents, there's no attempt to give them Linnaean names or even thumbnail descriptions. When plants' common names vary from place to place and related plants often parade under the same name, specifying genus and species is especially important, a convention one finds in the most useful gardening books and horticultural tomes. The lists entirely omit traditional bitters coloring agents such as sandalwood, Brazil wood, and cochineal.
Don't get me wrong; I'm glad to own a copy. If you're into cocktails, you should get one, too, if only to understand this core ingredient better. Even if you have no intention to macerate, infuse, percolate, and use homemade bitters, there's a wealth of recipes for cocktails using commercial examples. It's just that I would prefer to have seen a stronger editorial hand here, a more rigorous historical and scientific review before Bitters had gone to print. If I sound disappointed, it's because the book is merely good; it could have been great.